Marcus and Mandy had just figured out how to parent 3-year-old Sarah when her brother, Sam, came along.
Creative and expressive, Sarah changed her clothes at least three times every day simply because it was "fun." Getting on stage was a reward for this little extrovert, who thrived on public attention. Marcus and Mandy learned to motivate their daughter through positive attention and sincere celebration of her talents.
Then came Sam. As he grew, his parents discovered that he was naturally competitive and focused, but only when he was interested in the activity. The attention and celebration they were used to lavishing on Sarah had no impact on Sam. Their efforts were greeted with "Why are you so happy? I haven't done anything yet."
Sam worked hard when he understood the purpose of the current activity but hardly worked when faced with a task that simply had to be done. Mandy and Marcus felt like they needed all-new parenting strategies. And they were right.
Marcus and Mandy aren't the first parents to discover significant personality differences between their children. If you have more than one child, you've likely discovered that each of your children is unique. What "works" with one child won't necessarily work with another. And yet, the goals of parenting remain the same.
Ephesians 6:4 says, "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord." According to this verse, Christian parents are responsible to help their children develop self-discipline, a character trait that will help them evaluate their options and make healthy choices. Because young children have limited ability to regulate themselves, parents are called to lovingly impose boundaries until their children are mature enough to apply self-discipline.
A second goal of parenting found here is to impart the instruction of the Lord. In this passage, the word for instruction literally means "to place in the mind." Different than the usual word for teaching used in Scripture, it conveys the concept of helping your children think strategically through proven wisdom and heartfelt warnings.
How you instill self-discipline and impart godly instruction will look a little different depending on the personality of the child. Here are two ways to be intentional as you approach parenting goals.
Focus on one character quality at a time
Kids need to develop godly character traits, such as honesty, kindness and forgiveness, throughout their lives. But choosing one primary growth goal per year can be helpful. Try working through these steps for each of your children:
- Choose a character trait that addresses your child's current strengths, interests or area of deficiency — initiative, cooperation, resilience, kindness, etc.
- Communicate the focus on this trait in numerous ways. Consider creating a written agreement, hanging a poster on the wall, adopting a theme verse for the year or having the child use a journal to track progress.
- Tie your instruction and correction to the trait you want your child to develop. For instance, if your focus is initiative, ask questions such as "What would someone who is taking initiative do right now?" "How would someone who is developing initiative approach homework?" "What attitude would a person with initiative have toward chores around the house?" "What limits and freedoms would someone who is taking initiative apply to the use of a cell phone, social media or other technology?" "It is time for you to start taking initiative with your own adjustments, so what discipline can I impose that will help you make better choices?"
- Compliment your child every time you see progress in this trait.
Speak their motivational language
We all develop character on different motivational paths. Some kids function best with a lot of autonomy and active participation in every decision. Others need to know they are an integral part of a team that makes choices together. Still others are driven by accurate information that tells them what, when, why, who and how. And finally there are kids who are highly motivated when they feel they can help you, the parent, reach important goals. You can gain insight into what motivates each of your children by using four strategic questions:
"What do you think would help you be more focused and effective?"
If your child likes to be in charge and loves to work autonomously, this will be an attractive question. Otherwise, you will notice your child become disinterested or overwhelmed by the responsibility of having to decide.
"What can we do together to help you?"
If your child is motivated by teamwork, this will be an exciting prospect. If not, it will be met with indifference, ridicule or reluctant compliance.
"What information would make it easier for you to follow through?"
A child who is motivated by detailed explanations and consistent processes will want as much information as possible and will ask questions as long as you are willing to answer. Too much information will quickly flood other kids.
"Will you help me out by doing this?"
The opportunity to help you will add energy and focus to a child who thrives on offering personal assistance. Otherwise, it will seem more like a burden than an opportunity. Watch for which question causes your child to light up or engage. Be careful not to confront him with these questions in rapid-fire succession. Instead, ask them one at a time (on different days) and catalog his responses. Then build a motivational profile for each child.
As you get to know the personalities of your children and seek to nurture self-discipline through godly instruction, realize that being strategic won't solve every issue. However, every intentional step you take is an investment in the unique future God has for each of your kids.